Updated and expanded, the 2nd Edition of “Letters to a Young Entrepreneur” is now available!
In Letters to a Young Entrepreneur I have shared with you some of the highlights of my entrepreneurial journey. Here I very much welcome your comments, critique, suggestions, and, most importantly, sharing of your own experiences and insights.
My hope is that through this dialogue we all benefit from our common entrepreneurial adventure, and perhaps provide some new approaches to the challenges we all face as we embody our dream.
After reading my recent post titled “The Crucible of Anxiety,” my friend Bob Quinn (whose own post, “An Elusive Leadership Skill,” had prompted me to write mine), suggested that I augment what I had shared with an example from my personal experience. As I reflect on the many times that I have suffered anxiety when faced with complex leadership challenges, I realize that I had indeed been confronting a crucible, and how valuable my conversion of that vessel to a chalice was in helping me cope with crises and arrive at resolutions. Although this approach had consistently served me so well, until contemplating Bob’s post I had not been self-conscious about the process, and therefore had not found a good way to describe it to others.
I will relate here two specific events that illustrate my experience. The first is recent, and is the one that actually generated my awareness of the crucible and its conversion. The second one occurred many years ago, and deals with what perhaps was one of the most difficult moments in my own entrepreneurial journey.
I recently faced a very challenging situation with one of the biotechnology companies for which I had served as a board member for many years. It significantly taxed my ability to be a positive contributor, as it triggered strong emotional crosscurrents. We were disappointed with some clinical results, and confounded and frustrated by financial market forces that made it very difficult to continue to finance research on the much-needed medical breakthrough we were targeting. At the same time, I could intimately feel the disappointment of the very dedicated group of executives, scientists and physicians — many of whom had become good friends — who had spent a significant portion of their lives and careers in driving this important, next-generation technology forward.
I wanted to discharge my Board duties well, and understood that the realities of the business required action. But intense, conflicting forces were acting inside me: I also cared deeply for my friends, and understood the emotions and distress that the situation was causing them. If I wanted to be a helpful contributor to the resolution, I had to find a way within myself to come to grips positively with all the factors in this complex mix that affected so many constituents. While I had fully stepped into the complexity, it had created a deep crucible of anxiety inside me. At moments, I found myself unable to think clearly. This persisted, until one morning in my meditation I mentally moved the cauldron “outside of myself,” and instead found myself holding a receptacle in my arms that contained all the churning components. It was now in front of me, where I could see it, rather than ominously lurking inside me. This vessel felt amicable, not antagonistic. I felt love – yes, love – pouring into the vessel, and a strange new ability to attend to each part of the mix – people and situations – in a warm and caring way. I saw my mission as a sacred task rather than a discomfiting dilemma. The sensation was incredibly liberating. I was not detached; I was fully present. I did not have a feeling of being dragged into the abyss; on the contrary, I was feeling drawn-in with an empathic and humble desire to understand and respect each party. And, importantly, I realized that while at times I was feeling the whole weight of the situation resting on my shoulders alone, I was really only one well-meaning contributor trying to find the best outcome for all. I had transformed the cauldron into a chalice. Thereafter, I felt I was truly a positive contributor to the resolution rather than a stressed participant awash in the turbulent stream.
Of course, this was not the first time I had faced difficult dilemmas; they are an inevitable part of every entrepreneur’s journey when we push the boundaries, and I describe many in my book. Over the years, I coped as best as I could. I was, in fact, quite often transmuting a crucible of anxiety into a chalice of change, and consequently viewing what I was doing as a sacred task rather than a burden. This was the formula that had worked for me, even if I had not recognized it as such.
In hindsight, I clearly see that this transformative process is what helped me through perhaps the most difficult experience of my career: the need to reduce the size of the company I had so fully dedicated my life to build. This severely challenging experience gave rise to a full chapter in my book. I describe it in Chapter 9 “The Toughest Moments: Layoffs,” as follows:
“On a quiet December afternoon in 1990 I was taking a moment in my office to reflect on where we had come with our little company and on the many good things that had happened to us along the way. I was influenced by excitement in our scientific ranks about progress on a number of endeavors, most recently a project to eliminate a very toxic component in the manufacture of high-octane gasoline.
My phone rang. On the line, I heard the voice of one of the richest executives in the country. David Koch and his brother Charles owned the largest private enterprise in the energy and petrochemical field: Koch Industries. They had invested in Catalytica a few years earlier and now represented a major part of our research effort. I had dreams that, with our innovative capability and their commercial might, we would be able to make a profound impact in the petroleum and petrochemical industry. By the time I hung up from David’s call, the blood had drained from my face, and I felt faint and sick. He had just informed me that his brother, the Koch CEO, had decided to cut out our technology development and, as a result, they were severing their relationship with us.
Not only did this shatter our growth plans but it also created an instant financial crisis. My concern immediately went to my employees. How could I possibly preserve with what we had built together? Some of the very talent that Jim [my co-founder] and I had so diligently recruited to form one of the best catalysis research and development teams in the world would have to be fired. Yes, fired! The term itself connotes the magnitude of the task and the potential pain in the lives of the individuals affected.
I was barely able to make it to my car and go home. I cried on my wife’s shoulder. When I regained my composure, I set about contacting Jim, who was somewhere on the East Coast doing what he loved best: talking to potential customers about our great technology. Late that evening I finally located him in New York City and gave him the news. Bless his soul, Jim’s response was, ‘Ric, you and I will get on a plane tomorrow, and we will find new partners. What we have is good, and others will join us!’
Of course, he was right. We were knocked down, but we were far from knocked out. I regrouped and proceeded to make changes in our executive structure that would allow me to reduce the company with dignity and preserve, insofar as possible, the jewel we had built.”
Our mission had been much too sacred to have let this unanticipated event undermine our persistence, much less to destroy us. What I did, in that profound moment, is exactly what I have now come to convey as “converting the crucible of anxiety into a chalice of change” placing it in front, rather than inside, and enabling us to see the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Time and again, I have seen that the entrepreneur’s dreams are bigger, bolder and, ultimately, much more substantial than the challenges we face in the moment, if we can only truly see it as such. A decade later we received a very attractive offer that rewarded our persistence and the investors and partners that believed in us.
This note is prompted by a July 20, 2016 post by my friend Bob Quinn, Professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. You can find this excellent post at his “Positive Organization” website: https://thepositiveorganization.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/an-elusive-leadership-skill/ (By the way, consider subscribing to his posts, he frequently offers gems!)
The brief thoughts Bob expressed regarding “An Elusive Leadership Skill” prompted a cascade of ideas and reflections in my mind, all aimed at clarifying one of the crucial roles I have always attributed to leadership: coping with uncertainty.
I found two phrases in Bob’s post particularly revealing:
- Leaders “pursue their purpose by stepping into the crucible of anxiety”, and,
- Leaders “communicate the simplicity from the other side of complexity.”
The second phrase comes from the early 20th century jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said: “Little value in the simplicity that lies this side of complexity. Great deal of value in the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity.”
Here is what this means to me.
As leaders in growing companies, we are tasked with moving our organizations into new, uncertain territory. For the organization to flourish, this new territory is most likely different, bold and often disruptive. It is likely to be beset by many complexities and innumerable – often unforeseen – forces. Yet, as leaders we need to direct, discern, and decide for our organizations. In most of us, this causes a level of unease, and yes, anxiety, especially when the stakes are high or the matters are very delicate and sensitive. Quinn’s metaphor of a crucible is very apt. A crucible is a container that can withstand severe conditions, usually high temperatures, and often employed to conduct chemical reactions under harsh conditions. As I consider some of the most difficult leadership situations I have dealt with, many of which have involved personnel issues, I can picture the crucible sitting at the base of my stomach as I ponder and “churn” all the facts and perceptions I am dealing with and the issues I anticipate confronting. In fact, the image of heat and flames is not far off. One might say that this is the lot of the leader.
Now let’s turn to the Holmes statement. As we move into unknown territory or new situations, we are inevitably stepping into complexity. There is inherent danger, as we strive to cope — or avoid — the feeling of anxiety, that we might oversimplify the situation. This is the “simplicity on this side of complexity.” While it may make us feel better, or enable us to draw quick conclusions and spring into fast action, our decisions under these circumstances may in fact be shortsighted and perhaps even naïve. To truly tackle the problem, we must step fully into the complexity, allowing ourselves to become totally immersed by the downpour of facts and unknowns, of pressures and opinions, of perceptions and vested interests. We need to drink deep enough to gain as full an appreciation of the totality of the problem as possible. We are in the furnace, and the crucible of anxiety is cooking inside us. To add to the challenge, two elements may easily mislead us: our egos and our prejudices. In the heat of the chemical reaction, we may not even notice these reactive agents.
Our leadership task is to find a way to cross to the other side of the combustion so that we can discern the essence of the situation (the true simplicity) and gain clarity.
I propose that what we need to do first is to convert the crucible into a chalice. I use the word chalice advisedly. To me it connotes a vessel that purifies, transmuting the elements, and giving us the ability to see the process with greater clarity. It demands a level of empathy for all the ingredients in the reaction mixture, including factors and people that we may see as opposing us or even, perhaps in our eyes, having caused the situation in the first place. By redirecting the mix of anxiety into a chalice, we become much better at “digesting” the situation without a major bellyache, and applying to the issue all the tools at our disposal:
- our analytical capability,
- our sense of purpose and our passion,
- our moral compass,
- our spiritual anchor.
It also makes it so much easier for us to enter a quiet zone, which is so vital in allowing us to see with greater clarity how to guide all involved to a positive outcome.
In summary, some suggestions for when you find yourself face-t0-face with the unknown:
- Recognize the complexity that you are entering.
- Acknowledge that it will be uncomfortable.
- Resist the temptation for quick solutions to ease your discomfort: commit to move fully into the crucible of anxiety.
- Convert the crucible into a chalice, thereby gaining the peace needed to make you so much better at the discernment that will help you arrive at the eventual decision or action.
- Then step to the other side of complexity with the simplicity offered by clarity.
- Enact your decision with conviction.
I recommend that you reflect on this course of action. Ask yourself how it might have improved situations you have encountered in the past, and how it might help you in leading your organizations, your teams or perhaps even your personal affairs in the future.
I write my blogs sporadically. Triggered by particular events or situations with which I am deeply involved, I find myself prompted to write because of the acute nature of the matter. This post, however, is different. The subject has been lingering inside me for a long time. It rarely rises to the acute level, but rather I feel it as a dull “chronic” discomfort in situations when I sense a problem, but the stimulus is not strong enough to incite me to act. And then I bemoan the fact that I did not act in time. It’s like an ache telling me I should go and see the doctor… Yet I don’t go, figuring that trying to describe it would be too amorphous and thus embarrassing. Of course most of the time, it dissipates and life goes on just fine. But sometimes it does not.
The subject? Maximizing the effectiveness of a Board of Directors. I have been involved with Boards for almost half a century, and I attribute much of my entrepreneurial success to the extraordinary nature of the Boards I have been privileged to build and serve under as CEO. As I reflect on what worked so well, a few factors are evident:
- Each member of my Boards has been a superb professional.
- Members have joined my Boards because they believed in the company mission and trusted the executives.
- They did not do it for money, yet felt respectfully compensated for their efforts.
- They respected the other Board members, enjoyed their company, and did not hesitate to express their opinions while listening to the opinions and positions of their colleagues.
At the same time, I recognize that the Board of Directors is often comprised of strange bedfellows, which can be awkward. Meetings are few and far between, often months apart; some of these meetings are by phone; in-person meetings are even more infrequent. Members may know each other outside of the Board, but most likely do not see each other very often. They may live in different parts of the country or the world. To say they are a team is sometimes a stretch. To make them a team is possible but takes concerted effort. Yet Board members have a weighty responsibility: to monitor the company’s performance on behalf of the shareholders and ensure that execution meets expectations. To do so, one of their most important responsibilities is to hire and monitor the performance of the CEO. Yet for their deliberations and decisions, they depend on information that is provided by the CEO – who is, most likely, also a member of the Board. This places the CEO in a strange position: being a part of a group from which he or she may be excluded, when certain decisions are taken behind closed doors.
Most of the time this works very well. In addition to the caliber of the Board members, two critical factors facilitate good results:
- An active effort on the part of the CEO to work with the Board, by communicating often, managing the information flow and making key executives available for complementary discussions; and
- The skill, sensitivity and impact of the Board Chair.
It is the Chair on whom I want to focus in this article. I have been privileged to act as Chair on many Boards, as well as to serve as a Board member under many different Chairs. As I think back to the most critical growth periods of my companies, I attribute part of our success to my discipline in taking time to check in on all Board members frequently, to keep the information flow current, to never allow for any surprises, and to ensure that views are expressed and heard even in the most pressured moments. The times when I did not do well as Chair occurred when I fell into a few traps, which I describe below as typical “Syndromes.”
While many shortcomings can manifest themselves during the normal course of Board business, many manifest during Board meetings. The challenge is that Board meetings can be highly “charged” by the very nature of the participants, their inherent intensity and the import of their role. To work best, Board meetings require members – in particular the Chair – to be very aware of and present to emerging dynamics. When the tenor begins to crescendo, a good Chair senses this and redirects the energy before a discharge occurs. If, on the other hand, the Chair is affected, in whole or in part, by any of the Syndromes outlined below, things may rapidly take a course that is unanticipated or unintended.
The “Strongest Voice” Syndrome
A situation that appears in particular at Board meetings is something that all Chairs face: the Board member with the strong voice and the quick mind (especially financial), who can overwhelm a meeting and reduce the opportunity for considered deliberation, often by dint of his or her brilliance and eloquence. In doing so, such a strong voice may rob the Board of the great value of hearing different viewpoints and shared experiences. I learned this the hard way with some very vocal Board members in the early years of my entrepreneurial journey. But I also learned that if managed properly, such a situation can end with very positive results. One case that is strikingly vivid in my mind was when my young and small pharmaceutical company considered buying a large manufacturing plant in North Carolina. It contained a very sophisticated sterile manufacturing facility, something that was outside of our expertise. One Board member stated flat out that such a move would be crazy. His voice seemed particularly relevant because the facility had been built under his watch when he was CEO of the seller, a large drug company. You can imagine the weight of such an opinion. Fortunately, we were able to navigate the discussion to an examination of what it would take to make such an acquisition possible and prudent (in addition to the need for sizable funding which, at that point, we did not have.) In the end – and that end was 10 months later – we did make the acquisition and it catapulted our firm to be the largest outsourcing manufacturer of drugs in the Americas.
The “Founder” Syndrome
Being a company Founder is one of the greatest joys of the entrepreneur, especially if the enterprise grows. As I advise many Founders, a critical part of success (as it certainly was for me) is building superb Boards. Ideally, the Board is truly a strong, independent voice that enriches the leadership, guides and mentors the entrepreneur, and ensures that the business avoids mistakes that waste time and money. For this to be the case, an active, free and candid dialogue at the Board level is paramount. We must be careful not to overwhelm the Board with our “Founder’s aura,” which can be limiting. We tend to be so focused on our passionate vision that our capacity to listen may be affected. Selective hearing is a common ailment. We Founders need to constantly remind ourselves to clear our ear canals.
The “I am Still the Boss” Syndrome
This happened to me several times, and is related to the Founder-Chair issue described above. I founded a company of which I was CEO for many years. Eventually, I transitioned to Chair when we brought in a new CEO more capable of further growing the company. My shortcoming as Chair was due to the presence, often inadvertent, of my fingerprints on the everyday running of the business. I had given up the CEO title, but never fully let go. And the new CEO could feel it, as could the employees. Without meaning to, I was exerting an influence over the company that did not allow the new CEO to fully gain the leadership needed to propel the company to new levels. And I never appreciated that because of my lingering presence the incoming CEO – who I had recruited and felt very positive about – never entered the full covenant needed for him to be an effective entrepreneurial leader. A few years later, he found “a better offer” and resigned, giving us a very “generous” three-week notice. When I asked him how he could leave the company hanging at such a critical time, he simply said, “Well, what’s the problem? You’re still here.” That told the whole story.
The “Confusion between Executive and Non-Executive Chair” Syndrome
There are circumstances when companies need to have an Executive Chair as well as a CEO. This might occur during a transition period when a President is promoted to CEO or when a new leader is transitioned into the company from outside. In general, the Executive Chair holds some of the responsibilities of the CEO, and spends much more time on the company’s business than an ordinary Chair would or should do. The responsibilities of the Executive Chair often include some operations, whereas a non-executive Chair’s do not. The problem occurs when a Chair acts as if he or she is Executive Chair – often without even noticing it. In the process, the Chair will disenfranchise the CEO, eroding some of the CEO’s initiative, and not allow the CEO to fully become the organization’s leader. This is a very inefficient situation. While I may have good intuition and the best intentions, as Chair I may suggest initiatives to the CEO. Only when such initiatives are wholly “owned” by the CEO do they stand a chance of being successfully implemented. Implementation is not our job as Chair, although our demeanor may raise expectations to the contrary.
The “Clinical” Syndrome
As Chair, we are tasked with many key activities on behalf of the Board. They include being the key interface between the Company and the CEO in negotiating the employment agreement, coordinating performance assessments, reviewing compensation, or the much more difficult task of negotiating the exit of a CEO who is being replaced. As with so many complex negotiations, personal feelings may make the task more difficult. In those situations, some of us tend to take a more clinical approach and keep it impersonal. This may work well to get the best “terms” but, in the end, is not likely to yield a win-win outcome. Hiring, performance reviews and the rare need for separation are very sensitive and personal events for all involved. Showing the warmth of our humanity in these times is essential for a good outcome. As Chair, we need to remember this. Yes, we represent the Board, which is a somewhat impersonal “body,” yet it is an entity comprised of individuals. Part of our task is to carry this humanity to the discussion, regardless of whether being “detached” might seem the more expedient approach.
The “Overbearing” Syndrome
Let’s face it: Those of us in CEO or Chair positions are, by definition, individuals with strong personalities and, often, high adrenaline levels. We are passionate about what we are doing, and approach every task with gusto and exuberance. As we grow in our leadership journey one of our most important learnings is how to “tune” this enormous energy to be appropriate for different situations. Some of us are not very aware of the “long shadow” our personas cast. Sometimes, our hugs (while meant with a genuine and caring intent) can be too tight. I have both embodied this myself and seen it in others. The challenge is how to be fully present to this dynamic, especially in the Chair-to-CEO relationship. If our inclination is to get too involved, we need to recognize when we are stealing some of the breathing space from our CEO, and pull back.
The net of this post: If you are Chair, take the time to examine whether there are any aspects of these syndromes that ail you. If the answer is “Yes,” talk to fellow Board members or the CEO about your concerns, and recruit these colleagues to monitor you and help you become a better Chair. Further, I propose that neither the Chair nor the CEO are the most effective monitors of their own performance – or for that matter of the Board as a whole. These are tasks best relegated to a skilled external resource whose objectivity and professionalism inform their insights. So consider engaging an outsider for a regular 360 review of your performance as Chair and the effectiveness of your Board. While this may be time consuming and add expense, it is an extremely valuable investment that can make the difference between a good Board and an excellent Board. I have found such 360 reviews by an outside professional to offer some of my own best opportunities for personal growth. It also does wonders in “lubricating” the dialogue among Board members.
As I write this, two popular sayings come to mind: “Time flies when you’re having fun,” and “The best way to learn is to teach.” The five years since the publication of my first edition of Letters to a Young Entrepreneur have flown by. It certainly does not feel that long! Perhaps this is because after the book came out I entered a new wonderful phase in my life: I became a teacher.
Four years ago, the Chair of the Chemical Engineering Department at Stanford University, Eric Shaqfeh, asked me to teach a course on entrepreneurship, focused on the Engineering and Science industries that his graduates would be considering for their careers. To overcome my initial hesitation, Eric suggested I co-create the course with Howie Rosen, a fellow Stanford Chemical Engineering graduate. Howie had been involved in several biotech start-ups and became President of Alza Corporation shortly before it was acquired by Johnson & Johnson. He had already been teaching a number of biotech courses in the Engineering and Business School and was very familiar with the Stanford academic operation. This presented a wonderful opportunity for me to share my experience and convert the concepts I had presented in Letters into lectures and discussion material for seniors and graduate students interested in understanding the making of an entrepreneur.
In the process of shaping the course, I more keenly realized how the entrepreneurial leadership concepts in Letters apply to all of life—whether we are engaged in growing a small business or a large company, or in some other vocation that requires building and leading teams. After several years of teaching the course, I found that many new ideas had sprung from the students’ questions and challenges. I therefore decided to substantially expand Letters to provide my students with a more comprehensive basis for our dialogue. The increased scope of the second edition prompted me to add a sub-title reflecting that greater breath: Succeeding in Business Without Losing at Life — A Leader’s Ongoing Journey.
The new book is available from Amazon and other outlets, and will soon be available in electronic form on Kindle and iBooks. Convenient links to order the book can be found on this website.
I thank you all for your continued friendship and support.
KEY QUALITIES OF AN ENTREPRENEUR
Over the last several years, while working with my students, I have developed a series of descriptors that profile the entrepreneur. They are based on my experience as a life-long creator of new ventures. Like all “lists,” this is an abbreviated articulation of what is a complex and multi-faceted whole. Yet it serves to highlight some elements of what all entrepreneurs need to consider, as we strive to become better leaders.
My list is split into three domains of the entrepreneurial character: Inner, Outer and Core. I am not attempting to be comprehensive; I mainly want to trigger an active conversation that deepens our understanding of what makes an entrepreneur. Here is the short list:
INNER: -Passionate -Positive -Risk Tolerant -Big Thinker -Visionary
OUTER: -Articulate -Clear -Enthusiastic -Inspiring -Nimble
CORE: -Consistent -Authentic -Persevering -Discerning -Grounded
Clearly, many other characteristics might be added. Here are a few that have been suggested in my class discussions: Salvager (I like this one!), Dreamer, Realist, Courageous, Charismatic, Tough, Resilient, Self-confident, Good Self-esteem, Integrity. I am sure that you can think of others, and I welcome any ideas. My main aim is to take these characteristics and examine what I call the three key habits that an entrepreneur needs to master if he or she is to become a good leader: To Balance, To Breathe and To Trust.
LEARNING TO BALANCE
This may seem to be the easiest of the three, but yet is so often forgotten. The main reasons we entrepreneurs tend to neglect balance are:
1. We do not know ourselves well enough to identify our strengths and shortcomings (or if we do, we are unable to admit them, which amounts to the same thing), and
2. We are impatient. Often, for us, it is so much easier to just plow ahead, figuring that by the time we tell others what we want to do and how we want it done, we might as well do it ourselves. Yet the key to growing a venture is to engage others in the journey, and then deploy all constituents in the optimal way to reach our goal. To do this, we need to find balance, starting with ourselves.
Let’s take another look at the list of domains above, and consider where we sit in the optimist-realist scale. When I ask my students, most identify themselves as optimists. While that is fine (since a non-optimistic entrepreneur will find it hard to gain a following), we have to be very careful not to overlook the criticality of realists in our midst. In my book Letters to a Young Entrepreneur, I mention a number of instances in which having hard realists around me balanced my rose-colored glasses and saved our company.
Perhaps of more immediate relevance to all of us is the balance between leading and managing. For most of my entrepreneurial career, I never really tackled that question. I just did what I thought needed to be done, often resulting in micromanagement, and thus often limiting the creativity and contribution of others. Later, as an “entrepreneur emeritus” and teacher, my course preparation led me to a classic Harvard paper on the subject: John P. Kotter, What Leaders Really Do, HBR December 2001. I urge you to read it. It captures, in a wonderful way, a vital topic. I summarize Mr. Kotter’s concepts as follows:
Where a leader points, a manager plans.
Where a leader aligns, a manager organizes.
Where a leader inspires, a manager problem-solves.
Where a leader produces change, a manager produces predictability.
What each of us should examine is our propensity to lead or to manage. There is no value judgment in this question. Both are essential. The key lies in matching our skill with the need: achieving balance!
LEARNING TO BREATHE
As we grow in responsibility, whether in our own entrepreneurial ventures or in our roles within larger organizations, we expand the breadth of the topics that fall within our purview. We gain an increasingly broad sense of the task at hand, and we take on an increasing span of responsibility and accountability. In Letters, I introduce the concept that a leader’s main job is to absorb uncertainty (Chapter 3.) Presumably, as leaders by definition we have a more comprehensive view of the venture than do others – or at least we should have. Think of what we do when we drive a car: as we approach a sharp curve, our eye is (or should be) ahead of the curve. This makes for better and smoother steering. Also, as we “see” more of the road, we feel more secure in our steering. In the concept of “absorbing uncertainty,” a leader takes on the larger burden, so that others on the team can focus on more defined parts of the task.
To do the leadership job right, we need to encompass as much of the “scenery” as possible. I equate this with taking a deeper breath, as we spread our arms (and our awareness) to a broader horizon. This also requires us to look to the very edges of our field of vision – for threats and opportunities that may be less obvious.
This is the breathing in part.
However, we also need to breathe out, exhaling our breath in a purposeful manner to help our team gain focus and direction. As we breathe out, we point the way.
And this is the toughest part, at least for me: we need to breathe in and breathe out, continuously. My tendency is to dwell in one mode or the other – spending too much time either scanning the horizon or burrowing toward the completion of a particular project. To keep our venture healthy and alive, as leaders, we must sustain a constant flow between the two: breathing in and breathing out.
LEARNING TO TRUST
Both in breathing in to absorb uncertainty and breathing out to provide focus, a key ingredient is the mutual trust between our venture companions and ourselves. That requires us to be vulnerable, so that people can truly feel the genuineness of our commitment. And it requires that others “surrender” their reservations and have faith. That faith is critical. Without it, what we do is just mechanical and lacks the directional vector — the deeper purpose that is so important in providing energy to move toward our goals, whether we are leading or following. In Letters, I speak of trust packets as the vehicles in the exchange of commitments between leader and team member. I also speak of commitment as a mutual covenant, not policed by an outside document or a quality control officer. It is an internal act, upheld only and solely by our inner character.
This trust factor is the essence of the core within each of us. It raises the very fundamental question: can one learn to trust? Look at the adjectives I chose for the Core group above: Consistent, Authentic, Discerning, Persevering, Grounded. Are these innate? Or can they be trained?
The reason that this is an important issue in my course is my desire to leave my students with the tools to expand their leadership capacity. So I ask them to examine all the characteristics outlined at the beginning of this article (Inner, Outer, Core), in terms of whether they are shareable, learnable or innate — a topic of very rich and important dialogue, which touches on all three of the vital habits considered in this article: Balance, Breathing and Trust.
In all of these discussions with my students, something has bothered me: the prevalence of the designation “innate.” It implies that we either have “it” or we do not. It implies finality. Core is, by its nature, deeply internal — you cannot have others “cover for you.” If you do not have it, you are “done-in.”
I have begun to take a different view. I have come to believe that everyone of us has the capacity for integrity, honesty and authenticity. Each of us has a deeply seated spark of goodness. But as we fend off the challenges of living, we tend to develop coping mechanisms that “shield” this spark of light. We grow a “shell” around our spark — a shell of varying thickness, depending on our own personal life journey. Our task in learning to be good leaders and, for that matter, happy people, is to learn to shed — or at least crack — this shell, so that the inner spark can shine through. As others see our light, it becomes easier for them to trust us to lead our entrepreneurial ventures to success.
Recently I was asked to speak to a Stanford class. Since I teach a course at Stanford, that request was not unusual. Often professors seek guest lectures from the faculty; I do it myself for my Fall Quarter Entrepreneurship course. However, this request was unusual in that the course is on “The Pursuit of Happiness and Health.” At Stanford? A graduate course attended by mostly MBA and PhD students? In the many years I spent as a student at Stanford in the 60s and early 70s, I never encountered a course like this. And probably the only reason I was asked was because a student who had attended my course last Fall is a Teaching Assistant in the class. Her question: Had I been happy throughout my entrepreneurial journey of many decades, with all its severe challenges and obvious moments of great stress and distress? And, if so, what lessons could I convey to her students? A rather daunting request.
I have never even bothered to define “happiness” before, or for that matter, to ponder the question overmuch. Perhaps that is because I was never truly “unhappy.” Yes, I have had many, many distraught moments in my life, especially as a business executive. But I weathered those moments, and in the integral of my life’s journey I have been happy and grateful. How to convey this in a way that speaks to these students, many just getting started with life’s journey and under the pressures of high financial and career expectations at this elite university?
Mindful of the mystique that entrepreneurs engender, especially in financial-success driven Silicon Valley, I decided to start the lecture with a simple graph: the valuation history of Catalytica, the company I co-founded, grew and sold. It shows an impressive hockey stick: an early, slightly sloping line that suddenly took off on a vertical axis towards a very satisfying end-value — the type of curve so typical of hundreds of business plans entrepreneurs show prospective investors. I even showed the vertical valuation axis: starting with an original investment of $30,000 from the three founders and ending with the sale of the company for almost $1 billion. At first, I did not show the horizontal time axis. I let the students “absorb” this impressive story of entrepreneurial success. Then I showed the time line: it took almost three decades! The upward swing occurred only in the final 4 years. The rest was a very gradual rising line that on the scale of the graph hid the long, tortuous, agonizing and, at points, despairing reality. It hid the struggles that truly tell the story, including the fact that to get to the end point we had to raise almost $300 million in financing, diluting the three founders to a very modest percentage. And it hid that we faced many moments where our lifeline was measured in months and we did not know if we would survive.
Was I happy along that long arduous trek? Yes. Why? Because my daily metric was not financial success. My daily metric was a deep underlying purpose, a purpose that transcended any and all of the vicissitudes that were thrown at us: the arrows, the sudden gulleys and walls, the storms, the misunderstandings and the disappointments that beset us over the years.
In my Stanford Fall course, I speak repeatedly of the power of the dream and the importance of passion as a core inner characteristic of the entrepreneurial leader. I use Catalytica as a case study, conveying the mission that helped galvanize and focus us: to use our scientific skills to create manufacturing technology that was efficient and environmentally sound, that would marry economics with environmental responsibility to create a significant company.
Yet it was not until asked to deliver this “happiness” lecture that I examined more deeply my own true personal purpose in founding and growing a company. While the concept of environmentally sound and economically viable technology definitely connected with me, and was also probably a deep personal driver for many of my colleagues, for me what made my heart really “sing” was a little simpler: the desire to use my love of science and engineering to create breakthrough innovation in a work environment of deep cooperation, trust and support, an environment where we would not only be allowed to maximize our gifts and skills, but also accept and recognize our shortcomings and flaws. A depth of innovation and a supportive environment that would make us eager to come to work every day.
Why is this relevant? Because I believe that the key to my happiness was the congruence between my deepest drives and my everyday environment. And through the ups and downs of a three-decade entrepreneurial journey, this deeper purpose informed my actions – often unconsciously – and insured that these actions were in harmony with my core values.
We hear a lot about “core values.” The term is bantered about in groups, for teams, and at companies which, through elaborate exercises, come up with value statements that can be written on plastic-encased 3 x 4 cards to be toted in pockets or posted on walls, websites or in an annual reports. But I have always wondered what it really meant, this set of core values we were expected to recite at the drop of a hat (or at least, when the topic came up, make others believe we could by nodding our heads in agreement). I finally realized that our values are not really a list, not even a set of articulated beliefs or a formulaic set of codes. Our values are our response to events, and our behavior in the face of what life throws at us. It is in this response that we show our humanity, our character, our timbre as leaders. It flows from deep inside, and is framed by our deepest purpose.
That is why pondering our deepest purpose is so important. My message: find your true inner purpose, articulate it, massage it, feel it. Then let it be the conscious template of all your actions.
It also means that to embody our values we need the capacity to match issues and actions to that purpose, and the capacity to let events be digested in the crucible of our inner being for sufficient time to frame our response. This needs quiet space; it needs moments of inner peace. And it is one reason why I include in my Stanford course an entire session on spiritual anchor and meditation.
Another revelation: For a long time I have felt a power in reflecting on what I would like to see in my epitaph. I have talked about this with my wife, expressing to her that when I die I would like my tombstone to have a very simple statement: He touched and he cared. As I look at the statement of deep purpose I shared above, it really comes down to two words: impact and harmony. I see now how parallel these two principles are to my proposed epitaph… And how embodying my values and my purpose in life have been inexorably linked to my happiness.
Technical innovation is often at the heart of an entrepreneurial venture. The leader’s role is to create the right environment to facilitate and foster such innovation. This requires bringing together people of different skills and specializations, ideally individuals more competent than the leader in their areas of expertise, very comfortable pushing the boundaries of the unknown in their particular domain. Their domain risk tolerance is likely to be very high.
What the leader needs to recognize is that the risk tolerance of the expert in his or her area of specialization may not apply to their tolerance of the uncertainties in other aspects of the entrepreneurial venture. For example, a scientist who may be one of the best in the world at creating new photovoltaic materials and be very at ease with the inherent uncertainty of the discovery of new PV compounds may be very un-easy with the challenges of financing or selling. Just think of the un-ease that scientist may feel when confronted with only a six-month cash runway. The role of the leader is to absorb any extraneous uncertainty that may get in the way of the expert team member, freeing that individual to do the best job possible, to do the job unbridled.
Taking responsibility for the full uncertainty of the company is the logical task of the leader in an entrepreneurial organization. After all, the senior executive has the whole company in his or her hands, and is the one person most aware of all the known factors affecting the destiny of the company. That is the nature of the office. But how does a leader cope with such a large burden?
Two “capacities” make this possible:
- The capacity to “see” the whole picture, and
- The capacity to access a compass that will point in the appropriate direction.
By seeing the whole picture, I mean the ability to see beyond the obvious and immediate, to cast a wider vista and recognize all the forces and all the opportunities. As an engineer, I am particularly sensitive to the importance of drawing the full perimeter around a problem. We are trained as systems thinkers. We learn to scope an issue, define the relevant influencing parameters, gather data, and then establish some criteria that will permit prioritization of potential solutions. Then we go into action – until either we find the right solution or find out that we chose the wrong path. So we go to the next one. The key in this process is to make sure that we are smart in outlining the envelope of the issue, in defining the frame of the decision-making canvas. Make it too narrow, and we miss some key elements. Make it too broad and the task becomes too unwieldy and will take too much time. Yet someone needs to have the bigger picture, even while the team is tackling the narrower problems. That is the leadership job.
But it is not the only job. At the same time as “holding” the big picture, the entrepreneurial leader must be capable of reducing the scope of the issue, shrinking the canvas so as to concentrate the attention of the team on the most critical issues of the moment. This skill to breathe with the canvas, to maintain flexibility of the frame’s shape and size, is what distinguishes the brilliant leaders. This “canvas breathing” permits the leader to maintain visual acuity, often threatened by constant external disturbances and frequent surprises. It can reveal the silver lining in unforeseen problems, and permits the leader to discover alternative pathways around roadblocks.
To breathe with the canvas, the entrepreneurial leader needs to distinguish between the forces that are important and those that are distracting, to filter the noise, deflect the arrows, prioritize the demands that are constantly calling. This requires stepping back, and finding quiet zones within. For me, the best way to find such quiet zones is through meditation.
Meditation also helps with the second capacity that allows the leader to absorb uncertainty: access to his or her decision making compass. The need for a compass is perhaps best illustrated by a suggestion made in a fascinating book I just read and highly recommend: Incognito by David Eagleman. I found it to be a brilliantly written overview of the functioning of the brain, by a knowledgeable and very eloquent neuroscientist. His thesis is that the overwhelming majority of our actions are determined by the millions of chemical and electrochemical events in our body, and they are deeply influenced by our lifetime experiences. We may believe that we are making “conscious decisions,” when in reality the sequence of signals that leads to our decisions have already taken place before we are aware that we are taking action. And he talks about how to access this unconscious part of us, how we tap into our vast unconscious reservoir:
“If you cannot always elicit straight answers from your unconscious brain, how can you access its knowledge? Sometimes the trick is merely to probe what your gut is telling you. So the next time a friend laments that she cannot decide between two options, tell her the easiest way to solve her problem: flip a coin. She should specify which option belongs to heads and which to tails, and then let the coin fly. The important part is to assess her gut feeling after the coin lands. If she feels a subtle sense of relief at being ‘told’ what to do by the coin, that’s the right choice for her. If, instead, she concludes that it’s ludicrous for her to make a decision based on a coin toss, that will cue her to choose the other option.”
Meditation has allowed me, at critical times, to “probe what my gut is telling me.” It allows me to withdraw from the mundane hum and the many “demand arrows” that are constantly pointing at me yelling for my attention, arrows that tend to freeze the frame of the picture I am confronting, freezing the size of my canvas. It takes me to a quiet zone within myself that allows the canvas to expand and permits me to “see” problems differently, to hear my perhaps previously undetected inner voice, and to understand the best direction to pursue.
This very important “internal work” of leadership moves to a much broader topic, which I will tackle in a future post. It deals with the ability to expand the canvas to its extreme dimension, to the infinite, where we have a chance to reach a place where everything is one. It is the place the pre-eminent Christina mystic of the last century, Thomas Merton, calls “le pointe vierge,” the place Jesuits are taught in the Ignatian exercises to assess their feelings of “desolation and consolation” as they face difficult moral dilemmas. The seeking of this convergence point, this point of oneness, is my definition of spirituality, and is also closely connected with what I believe should be a holistic vision of the raison d’etre of one’s business or, for that matter, one’s life adventure. This is nicely explored by my good friend Jim Cusumano in his upcoming book, Balance, the Business Life-Connection, to be published this April by Select Books, Inc.